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New York High School Grades Paint a Murky Picture

November 17, 2009

The grades are in, and they are mixed. Nearly a quarter of the 281 city high schools that received grades for the last two years dropped a grade or so, demonstrating that GOP-backed Mayor Bloomberg’s education developments have been less fruitful than had been hoped. Here’s the story:

In releasing the third annual round of A through F grades for New York City high schools on Monday, the Education Department produced a rather murky picture: The number of schools receiving A’s on the city’s report cards increased this year, but more schools received C’s and D’s. And just one school received an F.

The Bloomberg administration has made the school report cards a central part of its accountability system, and the grades are likely to provoke renewed anxiety among large, struggling high schools in the city, which could be shut down for poor performance. The schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, has moved to close 28 schools, including 9 high schools, since the city began issuing the grades in 2007.

State education officials have also said that they plan to close the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide to comply with guidelines for a competitive federal grant that will award billions of dollars to states making strong efforts to improve schools.

Nearly a quarter of the 281 city high schools that received grades for the last two years dropped a grade or more, compared with 62 percent of the schools that maintained their grade and 14 percent that improved.

The grades rely heavily on measures of student improvement, including changes in state tests and graduation rates in high schools, rather than overall performance.

The grades for elementary and middle schools are based largely on year-to-year improvement on state standardized tests.

Mr. Klein announced the grades at the campus of the Henry Van Arsdale school in Brooklyn, which was shut down in 2007. Each of the three schools that replaced Van Arsdale — Williamsburg Preparatory School, Brooklyn Preparatory High School and Williamsburg High School for Architecture and Design — received A’s.

Mr. Klein said that the increase in low grades reflected higher standards. “Our schools are generally moving forward,” he said. “We are raising the bar, and will continue to raise the bar.”

When Mr. Klein announced that 97 percent of elementary and middle schools received A’s or B’s on their report cards this summer, critics said that the grades presented an inaccurately rosy picture of city schools.

Though 139 city high schools received an A this year, compared with 113 last year, the grading system produced some quirks. For example, 23 schools where a third of the students did not graduate in four years earned an A. Three schools received an A even though more than half of their students did not earn a diploma within four years.

Still, Mr. Klein said on Monday that he believed the high school grades provided an accurate picture of the schools’ performance.

High school grades rely on more factors than just state tests, so there was less drastic movement from last year to this year. Education officials raised the standards for each letter grade for high schools this year, as they did for elementary and middle schools. Officials said that they determined cutoffs for each letter grade based on improvements they predicted schools would be able to make.

Merryl H. Tisch, the chancellor of the State Board of Regents, said that she expected the state’s list of schools that should be shut would probably be similar to the list of schools receiving the lowest grades.

Overall, 7 percent of high schools citywide received a D or an F, including many of the large high schools that are still open.

Ms. Tisch said that New York City should focus on replacing its failing high schools with schools that draw on students largely from the surrounding neighborhood without any academic admissions criteria.

“I think that Mr. Klein will act aggressively, as he should in my opinion, to replace schools that have been failing for a really long time,” she said. “It’s painful for communities, but it’s significant and we have to do this in a way that won’t just displace students.”

Jeffrey Bernstein, a cosmetology teacher at W. H. Maxwell Career and Technical High School in Brooklyn, which received a D for the second year in a row, said that he feared the school would be shut down despite the best efforts of teachers and administrators. He said that the grading system was particularly unfair for a vocational school like his.

“I’ve seen the school at its best and at its worst, and I can tell you that we are improving right now,” said Mr. Bernstein, who has been at the school for 20 years and is the teachers’ union leader there. “The teachers keep fighting the good fight, and they keep getting slapped back down. If you get morale down with adults, the students are going to sense it.”

Larry Wilson, the principal of Bread and Roses Integrated Arts High School in Manhattan, said the change in calculations meant that his high school dropped to a C this year, down from a B last year, even though the school’s overall score improved. “It’s a painful thing,” he said. “But we’ve got to live with the system we have.”

Mr. Wilson said that at a small school like his, with 525 students, a single teacher could affect the grade. He said that one key indicator of progress — the number of students earning 10 or more credits — dropped, partly because a new history teacher gave failing grades to about half of her 11th-grade students.

“Your job is to reach them, and she had trouble doing that,” he said of the teacher, who has since left the school. “She didn’t get that when most of the students are failing, it’s really the school that is failing the students.”

The school environment grades, which are based on attendance and results of student, parent and teacher surveys, and make up 15 percent of the grade, showed the steepest decline. This year, 55 high schools received a D or an F in school environment, compared with 12 last year.

More than 20 percent of high schools did not receive grades, either because they are too new to have had a senior class graduate or because they are in the process of being shut down.

  1. November 18, 2009 8:58 am

    these “figures” sent out by the Department of Education and the State Board of Regents are based on reality. They are all based on dumbed-down standards that are supported by both the professional education and political community. If students recieve “good grades,” everyone wins – at least in their view.

    This is why Mayoral Control doesn’t work to add “accountability” to the City’s education system.

    Sadly, “merit bonuses” are paid out based on these ficticious results – wasting resources that could be used to directly education children…

    • November 18, 2009 8:59 am

      OOppss…I meant so say “NOT” based on reality…

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